Today, Michelle is enjoying her life, sending her two young boys off to school and running her own company. But when she thinks back to when she was 20 years old, she remembers telling her mom she didn’t know if she could go on living.
“I was totally tapped out, mentally, physically and spiritually,” Michelle said. “I remember telling my mom I just wanted to go to sleep and never wake up.”
Michelle was in the middle of her second battle with cancer. The first began when she was just 14, a fight against a rare form of leukemia that lasted 6 years. After two months of being cancer-free, Michelle started to notice incredible pain in her kidney, and doctors discovered she had Ewing sarcoma, a completely different form of cancer. She endured an eight hour surgery to remove her cancer-ridden kidney, and she was in the middle of a year of grueling chemotherapy when she felt like she couldn’t keep going.
“I couldn’t believe this was happening again, and I was really upset by what was going on with my body,” Michelle said. “I had just started college, I wanted to graduate and get a job and have kids – and in the hospital, in pain, it didn’t feel like I was going to be able to do any of those things.”
Michelle’s cancer was rare, and her situation was even rarer – doctors said they’d never seen this kind of cancer show up in a person’s kidney. Because of her unique case, doctors had no set protocol for her. After the surgery to remove the kidney, doctors recommended Michelle continue with a full year of chemotherapy to ensure that any remaining cancer cells were killed. Michelle made it through 11 months, and then said she just could not continue. Upon refusing her last month of treatment, she weighed 90 lbs and could barely walk. But she started to get this strange feeling – a feeling of peace.
“Something spoke to me, and I just started to feel this underlying peace. I started to believe that everything was going to be ok.”
And slowly, things did start to be ok. Michelle started recovering from almost a year of chemotherapy and worked toward taking her life back – her teenage and young adult years were stolen by cancer, and she was determined to create a life for herself as a survivor. Though she lived with difficult memories of her time in treatment, she started to see the hope she gave to those around her – and started feeling that hope herself.
“I would go back and visit the hospital and people would say things like, ‘We love seeing you here, you’re such a light to everybody,’” Michelle said. “So I started thinking ok, maybe I’m here for a reason. I’ve been through this twice and lived while other kids didn’t, so maybe I have a purpose here. Maybe there is hope for someone else.”
Michelle, who is now married with two sons, has only one person in her family, her uncle, who has encountered cancer. But it has been rare that she has really encountered any family members or close friends with cancer since she was treated decades ago. She says she still thinks about her experience often, and is in a place in her life where she wants to give back. She remembers how she felt in her toughest moments, and offers a piece of advice to kids and teens who are struggling to find peace in the nightmare that is cancer.
“If you’ve been on the receiving end of cancer, you know you can’t tell someone ‘you’re going to be OK,’ because they might not be. But you have to find something to grab onto. You almost need someone to tell you that this sucks, and it isn’t easy, but you have to keep moving and keep fighting,” she said. “And never feel guilty for being one of the ones who is making it through, because you give people hope.”